Unions find Southern comfort: Tennessee is fastest growing state in U.S. for union membership

BY THE NUMBERS• $950 - Average weekly pay for union members in 2013, up from $943 per week the previous year• $750 - Average weekly pay for non-union workers in 2013, up from $742 per week the previous year• 209,000 - Number of Georgia workers who belonged to a union in 2013, up 22 percent from 171,000 the previous year• 203,000 - Number of Alabama workers who belonged to a union in 2013, up 22 percent from 166,000 the previous year• 155,000 - Number of Tennessee workers who belonged to a union in 2013, up 25 percent from 124,000 the previous year• 14.5 million - Number of Americans nationwide who belonged to a union in 2013, unchanged from the previous yearSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

FASTEST GROWING UNION STATESNationwide, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions remained relatively constant at 14.5 million. Southern states with some of the lowest union participation rates showed the biggest gains in union membership during 2013.• 1. Tennessee - Union membership grew 25 percent to 155,000 members• 2. Georgia - Union membership grew by 22.2 percent to 209,000 members• 3. Alabama - Union membership grew by 22.2 percent to 203,000 members• 4. South Carolina - Union membership grew by 19 percent to 69,000 members• 5. Virginia - Union membership greew by 13.2 percent to 180,000 membersSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor StatisticsLOWEST UNION MEMBERSHIP STATESNationwide, 11.5 percent of all workers belonged to a labor union in 2013. The states with the lowest share of union members were predominantly in the South:• 1. North Carolina, 3.0 percent• 2. Arkansas, 3.5 percent• 3. Mississippi, 3.7 percent• 3. South Carolina, 3.7 percent• 5. Utah, 3.9 percent• 6. Louisiana, 4.3 percent• 7. Idaho, 4.7 percent• 8. South Dakota, 4.8 percent• 8. Texas, 4.8 percent• 10. Arizona, 5.0 percent• 10. Virginia, 5.0 percent• 12. Georgia, 5.3 percent• 13. Florida, 5.4 percent• 14. Wyoming, 5.7 percent• 15. Tennessee, 6.1 percentSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

photo Graph of union membership increases in Tennessee and Georgia.

Tennessee may be the Volunteer State, but a growing share of its workers are organizing to get better pay and working conditions.

Last year, Tennessee had the fastest rate of growth in union membership of any state, according to new government figures. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 31,000 more Tennesseans were members of labor unions in 2013 than in the previous year, swelling the ranks of organized labor in the state by 25 percent last year and boosting union rolls to the highest level in nearly a decade.

Georgia and Alabama were close behind Tennessee in the growth rate for union membership with union rolls growing in each state by more than 22 percent last year. BLS estimates Georgia added 38,000 union members last year and Alabama added another 37,000 union members during 2013.

"I honestly think we're not going to see a huge surge in unions in Tennessee and the South, but I do think we should see a slow, steady climb in membership," said Gary Moore, president of the AFL-CIO in Tennessee. "The labor movement can be like a Yo Yo with membership up or down when plants open or close, but there is a great potential for organizing out there, and I think you'll see more organizing efforts as more workers recognize the value of unions."

Labor economists say organized labor is flexing its muscle in the traditionally non-union South to reverse the decades-long decline in union participation among most American workers. The relatively big percentage gains last year largely reflect the historically low rate of unions to begin with in the South and the internal growth of unionized employers in industries such as manufacturing and construction coming out of the recession.

"When you start with a lower base of union membership, it's obviously easier to get big percentage gains when you add members," said Dr. Barry T. Hirsch, chair of the American Workplace at Georgia State University who tracks union trends across the country.

"History matters a lot and typically in the South, where unionization has been so low for so long, people grew up without knowing about unions or many have very negative views about unions," Hirsch said. "It appears there is a bit of a change going on, but it's still early to see how much and how long these recent growth trends may continue."

The union membership gains in Tennessee last year were aided by General Motors' expansion at its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant, which added 1,800 workers represented by the United Auto Workers, and the additional construction work across the state relying upon unionized crafts like electricians, carpenters, bricklayers and other building trades.

The long-term trend has been one of decline for organized labor, which shed nearly half of its members in Tennessee and Georgia between 2000 and 2010 prior to the recent uptick in membership. As a share of the workforce, union representation is only a third of what it was a generation ago.

Nationwide, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions last year remained steady at 14.5 million. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

In Chattanooga, once a union stronghold in the historically non-union South, union membership remains below both the state and national averages, according to BLS and census bureau statistics compiled by Hirsch's unionstats.com. In 2013, only 4.8 percent of all Chattanooga area workers belonged to a labor union, including only 1.5 percent of private-sector workers.

But 2014 could be a pivotal year for unions to regain their foothold in Chattanooga with an organizing campaign that is drawing global attention.

The United Auto Workers is trying to gain its first foothold among the foreign transplant car makers which have opened plants in the South over the past three decades. UAW is targeting Volkswagen's assembly plant in Chattanooga, where the union claims to have collected cards from a majority of hourly workers indicating their support for the UAW.

The National Labor Relations Board could soon oversee an election to determine whether a majority of workers want to recognize the UAW and join the union. VW hourly workers are represented by labor unions at all of the company's other major plants other than the Chattanooga facility.

Unlike most employers, Volkswagen is not resisting the union organizing effort. The German auto maker has members of the German industrial union IG Mettal on its supervisory board and VW operates worker councils with union and management employees at most of its facilities.

U.S. labor laws require that workers belong to a union for the company to operate worker councils that not only discuss work procedures but worker pay and benefits.

"Volkswagen values the rights of its employees in all locations to representation of their interests," VW spokesman Scott Wilson said. "In the United States, it is only possible to realize this in conjunction with a union. This is a decision that ultimately lies in the hands of the employees."

That decision is gaining attention far beyond the $1 billion plant in Chattanooga where VW manufactures more than 100,000 Passats a year.

"It seems that both the business community and labor are seeing what's happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history," Daniel Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University, told The New York Times.

Business groups, including the National Right to Work Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, are opposing the UAW union campaign. The business groups argue that unions can interfere with management and worker relations, yield to costlier work rules and discourage other businesses from investing in the community out of concern that their workers may also join a union.

Union members, on average, earned nearly 27 percent more than their non-union workers in 2013, according to the BLS. Much of that difference reflects differences in jobs and local costs of living, however. Hirsch said union workers in comparable jobs typically earn about 15 percent more than non-union peers.

A billboard erected near the VW plant last summer proclaimed that "Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next meal: Chattanooga."

Tennessee's top Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker who helped recruit Volkswagen to his hometown, also worry that the UAW could hurt the cost competitiveness of Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant and scare away other businesses that don't want their staffs unionized.

Corker said VW "would be the laughing stock" of the industry if it voluntarily brings the UAW into its Chattanooga plant.

Critics of labor unions see the presence of UAW at Volkswagen and other gains by labor unions as a disturbing trend that could begin to alter aspects of the South's business and political climate.

"This reflects a strategic decision on the part of organized labor to target the South and to some extent it is bearing fruit," said Matt Patterson, an anti-tax advocate who helped establish the Center for Worker Freedom this year to fight unionization efforts in the South. "Our concern, and that of a lot of conservatives, is that organized labor spends so much and works so hard for liberal, big government causes and has a political agenda that leans so heavily to the left. A higher unionization rate in the South could lead to a different political culture in the South as unions use their dues and organization to support political candidates and causes that lean left and are contrary to the political views of most people in the South."

Moore, who served in the Tennessee Legislature as a Democrat, insists he doesn't take a strictly partisan view for the AFL-CIO in Tennessee.

"We support candidates that support us, without regard of whether they are Ds (Democrats) or Rs (Republicans)," Moore said. "But most of those that favor us are Democrats."

Moore said workers at Volkswagen and other companies should be free to choose if they want to join a union.

"Unfortunately, this is the first time I recall where you've had politicians actively trying to keep a union from coming in," Moore said. "Some think the only way to grow Tennessee is to cut workers comp, not have unions and pay workers less. If that is true, why don't we just become a third world country and not pay our workers anything. I don't think our society wants that."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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